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HACKING HOLLYWOOD: Outsiders guide to Screenwriting

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Jamie Nash

on 20 February 2014

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Transcript of HACKING HOLLYWOOD: Outsiders guide to Screenwriting

Elements of a Good Spec Idea
High-Concept -- Concept as star. A concept so good we don't need to get Wil Smith to star in it. JThe concept alone elicits "I want to see it" from the core audience.
Unique and Universal
Star Part -- Still, there's a great part for a major movie star.
Shared Audience -- Shares an audience with highly-successful recent movie(s).
Genre That Sells on Spec -- Drama, animation, historic pieces are difficult sells.
Idiot Proof Logline -- The concept is so good, even an off the top of your head logline sounds like a winner.
Great Title
Something You Want to Write. Find the intersection of what you want to write and what Hollywood wants.
"You had me at hello" -- Jerry Mcguire
You get into an elevator.
Steven Spielberg is next to you.
You're both going to the 30th floor.
He notices the script in your hand and asks "What's your script about?"
The Big Idea
So who has the final say on which ones to buy?
Hint: The average Marketing Budget in 2010 is about 45mil.
How do scripts become movies?
What are THEY looking for?
Translation: Sequel, Sequel, Sequel, Prequel, Sequel, Sequel, Reboot, Sequel, Adaptation, Sequel.
What is a Spec Script?
Sold on the open market.
Sample of a writer's work to gain representation.
A writer writes a script
A rep(agent or manager) goes out with it to....
...PRODUCERS...who sometimes...
....ATTACH ACTORS and DIRECTORS in conjunction with the rep...
...and then submit to Studios. The Studios decide to purchase a script or PASS.
What do Marketing Departments want?
Concepts they can sell through simple communications -- trailers, posters, TV ads.
Concepts that feel both familiar, yet original.
Concepts that cater to specific audiences.
The most effective way to improve your chances to sell to Hollywood is to come up with better concepts. While not a goal -- bad scripts with GREAT concepts sell. Great scripts with unmarketable concepts don't.
NEW RULE: Come up with your great Elevator Pitch BEFORE you decide to write a script.
Some other factors:
For a price.
Mental Real Estate
Reintroducing an old genre
Beware of the Execution Dependent Screenplay.

Execution Dependent movies are movies that only the 'best version of that movie are hits.

Examples: American Beauty, Slumdog Millionaire. A simple test to see if your concept is Execution Dependent: How many directors can you think of that would be good directors for the concept? If you can't think of more than five, you are certainly execution dependent.
Writing for Readability
It's about Paranormal Investigators who start a Ghost Extermination service in Manhattan.
It's about a theme park with cloned dinosaurs
It's about a Killer Robot sent from the future to kill the leader of the man who will save the world from the robots.
It's about a kid who is left home alone on Christmas and must fend off two bumbling attackers.



1. OPENING IMAGE (1): First impression of what movie is. It’s tone, mood, type and scope.

2. THEME STATED (by page 5): Another character (not main character) will pose a question or make a statement to the main character that is the theme of the movie. It will be conversational, but will have impact and meaning later on.

SAVE THE CAT SCENE: (It’s the scene where we meet the hero AND the hero does something, like saving a cat, that defines who he is and makes us, the audience, like him.)

3. SET-UP (1-10): “Sets up” the hero, the stakes, and the goal of the story. Make-or-Break section. Plant every character tic, every behavior that needs to be addressed later on, and show how and why the hero will need to change in order to win.

4. CATALYST (12): The first moment when something happens! Gotta have it. Opposite of good news. After you’ve just set up everything and this world we’re in, you now knock it all down with the catalyst moment.

5. DEBATE (12-20): It’s the last chance for the hero to say: This is crazy! And we need him/her to realize that. Should I go? Dare I go? Sure it’s dangerous out there, but what’s my choice…stay here? The debate section must ask a question of some kind.

6. BREAK INTO TWO (25): Something big should happen! No later than page 25 in an 110 page script. The moment we leave the old world, the thesis statement, behind and now proceed into a world that is the upside down version of that, it’s antithesis. Because two worlds are so distinct, stepping into ACT TWO must be definite. Hero must make decision himself. Can’t be lured or tricked into it, hero has to choose to do it.

7. B STORY (29): The internal story. The story that carries the theme of the movie and a place to openly discuss the theme. Love story of most films. It is a little Booster Rocket that smoothes over the shockingly obvious A story and the Act Break that just occurred. B Story gives us a breather. It says: “Enough already. Let’s talk about something else.” Usually introduce a whole new bunch of characters. They are usually Upside Down versions of characters that inhabit world of Act One.

8. FUN AND GAMES (30-50): Section that provides the promise of the premise. It is the core and essence of the movie’s poster. It is where most of the trailer moments of a movie are found. It’s where we aren’t as concerned with the forward progress of the story because the stakes aren’t raised until the MIDPOINT. Concern here is having “fun”. Why did I come see this movie?

9. MIDPOINT (50): Stakes are raised at the midpoint. Fun and games are over and it’s back to the story! It’s either an “up” where the hero peaks, although it’s a false victory OR it is a “down” where the world collapses around the hero, although it’s a false defeat and the world can only get better.

10. BAD GUYS CLOSE IN (50-70): Applies to situation hero finds himself in at the midpoint. The forces that are aligned against the hero, internal and external, tighten their grip. Evil is not giving up and there is nowhere for the hero to go for help. He is on his own and he must endure. He’s headed for a huge fall that brings you to the next beat ALL IS LOST.

11. ALL IS LOST (70): The inverse of Midpoint. Best if you stick something here that involves death.

12. DARK NIGHT OF THE SOUL (70-75): The darkness right before the dawn. It can last five seconds or five minutes. It’s the point just before the hero reaches way, deep down and pulls out that last, best idea that will save himself and everyone around him. BUT at that moment, the idea is nowhere in sight. It works because it’s primal. Hopeless. Yield control of events over to fate. We must be beaten and know it to get the lesson.

13.BREAK INTO THREE (75): The solution. An idea to solve problem has emerged. Thanks to the characters found in the B story, thanks to discussing theme in B story and thanks to hero’s last best effort to discover a solution to beat the bad guys who have been closing in and winning in the A story, the answer is found! Both in A story (external) and B story (internal) which now meet and intertwine, the hero has prevailed, passed every test, dug deep to find solution. Now all he has to do is apply it.

14. FINALE (75-95): ACT THREE. This is where we wrap it up. It’s where the lessons learned are applied. It’s where the characters tics are mastered. It’s turning over old world and creation of new world order all thanks to hero who leads the way based on what he experienced in the upside-down world of ACT TWO.

15. FINAL IMAGE (95): Opposite of opening image. Proof that change has occurred.

This is an example of a film in a genre with a structure using Save the Cat. See how easily it looks and feels like a studio movie?
Remember: Professional Screenwriters don't usually make their living selling specs. They do it working on assignments.
Concepts may get your foot in the door, but you need to be able to tell a story to have a writing career.
Another Rule: You need an elevator pitch that an idiot can pitch.
Who are the potential idiots?
You to reps and producers.
Your rep to producers, studios, attachments.
A producer to attachments and studios.
Studios to greenlight committee and marketing.
Marketing department to the audience.
The audience to their friends and the world via social media.
Some Spec Sales:
THE $40,000 MAN
When an agent (Jason Siegel) is almost killed by his arch-nemesis, the government enlists the latest technology to bring him back and artificially rebuild his destroyed body – their budget: $40,000.

Hugh Jackman finds himself unwillingly participating in a deadly contest when he receives information on nine other people in the mail with instructions that whoever kills the other nine and becomes the sole survivor, wins the game.

A group of jaded millionaires decide to pit their own personal assassins against each other in a clandestine, deadly game.

Shy, 16-year-old Michael Cera gets his hot 23-year-old nanny (Isla Fisher) to sign a “contract” stating she’ll sleep with him when he’s her age. Seven years later, he heads to NY to find her and enforce the contract.

A fake psychic (Kristin Wiig) becomes famous after one of her phony predictions comes true.
Action Steps:
1. Make sure all your ideas have all the elements of a good concept, before you write.
2. Brainstorm 100 concepts before deciding on any one single concept.
3. Test market your top 5-10 concepts with your trusted circle.
4. When you decide on your The One, research any film recently released or in development that are similar. Use sites such as scriptsales.com, IMDB pro, Trackingb.com
5. Most important, only choose a concept YOU WANT TO WRITE!
Other Materials.
--Save The Cat, Save The Cat Goes to the Movies, Save The Cat Strikes Back -- Blake Snyder
--Story -- Mckgee
--The Writer's Journey -- Chris Vogler
--Screenplay -- Syd Field
--Anatomy of Story -- John Truby

-- www.scriptsales.com
-- www.trackingb.com
-- scriptshadow.blogspot.com
-- hcd.com
--zoetrope.com ; triggerstreet.com

--Creative Screenwriting
--On The Page
--The Business
--The Treatment

Assume the reader has ADD and is texting to his friends while at a rock concert and you'll be fine.
Why not just write the script?
Quotes from readers:
"The Biggest difference between amatuer writers and pros...a pro knows how to tell a story."
---"The Audience is way ahead of you. The script is much much slower than you think it is."
--"Get on with the story"
--"Most scripts die in the first 10 pages. The rest die in the second act."
The Rule of Great Parties -- Arrive late, leave early.
Buy screenwriting software.
The Golden Rule of Format -- Don't worry too much about format.
Basic Screenwriting Style:
1. Whitespace -- Twitter wrting -- No paragraph should be more than 4 lines.
2. Present tense.
3. Write what you see on the screen. Nothng else.
4. Ignore anything that isn't critical.
5. Description of character and objects should be more about 'personality' than laundry list.
6. Search and destroy the 'is'/'are' sentence structure. "Our Hero is sitting in a chair" should be "Our Hero sits in a chair."
7. Don't worry about sentence structure. Go for impact.
8. Remove orphans.
9. Search and destroy 'ly' words.
10. Seek out emotional verbs. She walks vs. She storms out.
11. In general beware of camera direction and using 'we see'. But they have their uses.
12. Scenes should be at most 3 pages.
13. Scripts should be between 90-110 pages. The shorter the better.
Action to Improve Readability:
Read! Read! Read! Amatuer scripts. Movies you have seen and hot specs.
Find a peer group. A great way to improve your readability is to read others and have others crit you.
...Camera Rolling...and....ACTION...
On average 40,000 scripts are WGA registered every year.
Goal For Specs:
1. Spec Sale
2. Writing Sample/Contests
3. Indy Production.
A spec script (speculative screenplay) is a screenplay for a movie that is shopped or sold on the open market, as opposed to one commissioned by a studio or production company.
What is a spec script?
The spec game has long odds
So how do we increase our odds?
Field, Campbell/Vogler, Mckgee, Seger, Aristotle, Sequence Method, etc, etc, etc.
Selling Specs
Assignments are the bread and butter of professional screenwriting.
How do most professional Screenwriters make their money?
But you need a spec to break in.
Audience for your spec(s):
1. Agents and Managers
2. Producers and their Readers
3. Studios and their Readers
4. Contest Readers


1. Opening Image (1):

2. Theme Stated (5):

3. Set-up (1-10):

4. Catalyst (12):

5. Debate (12-25):

6. Break into 2 (25)

7. B Story (30):

8. Fun and Games (30-55):

9. Midpoint (55):

10. Bad Guys Close In (55-75):

11. All Is Lost (75):

12. Dark Night of the Soul (75-85):

13. Break into 3 (85):

14. Finale (85-110):

15. Final Image (110):
"Screenplays are structure". -- William Goldman
1. What audiences expect -- largely unconcious(that was too long, rushed ending, slow, etc)
2. Dates back to the Greeks
3. Archetypical.
Whitespace is your friend
YET ANOTHER NEW RULE: Come up with 100 ideas before you settle.
Innovations are found at the intersections of two ideas:
Facebook -- Social Interaction meets the Internet
Magic The Gathering -- Fantasy Gaming meets Collectible Cards
Pixar -- Animation meets computer technology
Pumpkin Spice Lattes
Movie ideas are often the intersection of two ideas:
--Jaws in space
--Seven Samurai with cowboys
--James Bond as an archealogist
--Hamlet with lions
Rules of Brainstorming:
1. Worry about Quantity not Quality.
3. Bring your tastes/passions. Make it your own.

The Page 1 Test:
--Prove that you know the form in 10 pages, and the reader is free to evaluate for story purposes
1. Know The Rules
2. Know the Audience
3. Be Bold!
What makes a great Spec Script?
1. Great Idea.
2. Great Story Execution.
3. Great read.
So how do you make a career of it?
Your concept needs to be worth 100 million dollars!!!!
Technique 1: This meets This
In 2012 99 spec scripts sold.
14 were from new writers.
As genre -- action, thrillers, comedies sold the most. A typical trend.
The good news is that with the success of Inception and Grownups and some of the bombs like Sorceror's Apprentice and Sex & The City 2...there may be a shift to original material.
Really this is four Acts:
Act 1
Act 2A
Act 2B
Act 3
Definition of terms:
BeatSheet(outline) -- A worksheet that describes each scene or beat of a story, usually chronologically.
Synopsis -- 1-10 page written pitch.
Treatment -- 8 - 50 page document that writes out the story in a more novelistic prose.
Scriptment -- A treatment with dialogue added.
Outlining Myths:
1. It's not really writing -- Actually Writing without outlining is just a much slower more wordy form of outlinging
2. I won't have the freedom to explore better ideas-- why not? There's no rule that says you have to stick with the outline if you get a better idea. And once you actually writer a 100 page draft, your less likely to explore an idea.
3. I figure it all out in my head -- fine. But does it hurt to write it out, too?
Beat Sheets == Outlines
Scene Checklist For Beatsheets:
1. Is there conflict?
2. Is the scene essential to the plot? Is there a value change?
3. Is there a situation?
4. Is there cause/effect?
5. Setup/Payoffs?
Cast All Your Characters(even if it's with your friends)
Beware of on the nose dialogue -- characters who say EXACTLY what is on their mind.
MAN: Hello, how are you?
WOMAN: Terrible.
MAN: Would you like to go home and sleep together?
WOMAN: You are gross and old.
MAN: Hey, do I know you?
WOMAN(SNARKY): I don't think so...I'm sure I'd remember you.
MAN: Would you like a drink?
WOMAN: I'm sorry...I'm here with a ...girlfriend.
The Simple Cure: Let your characters tell white lies:
Cast your storyteller.
Left Hand line technique:
Billy races across the roof. The edge looms in front of him --
He leaps across the chasm, to the building beyond.
Falls short.
Clutches for a handhold --
Slips, and plummets to his death.
Read it out loud.
Don't walk out! You can do it.
Technique 2: Fill In The Blank
School for ____
______ For Hire
_____ From Hell
_____ with Teens
______ with Aliens
A _____ ends up in the worst place in the world for him/her which is _______.
A __________ ends up with his exact opposite, a ____________.
____with teens.
____ as a horror movie.
___ as a comedy.
___ as an action movie.
___in the past.
___ in the future.
___ but the villain was the good-guy.
___ with magic.
____with the main character switch(ala Wicked)
___10 years later.
___the unofficial prequel.
___the unofficial sequel.
Look at movies you like and reverse your own fill in the blanks.
3-Act Structure: Every story has a beginning, a middle and and end. In the beginning, you introduce your characters and ask the primary question of your story. At the end, you answer the primary question. The middle, or second act, is where you tell your story. Think of the second act as "your movie", it becomes less of a vast 60-page wasteland and more of a playground.
...enter Syd Field...
Breaking the story.
Buttons -- Endings of scenes or outs. Using buttons can turn your script to a page turner. Use buttons to establish the emotion of the scene ending, or put a question in the readers mind(throw) that will hopefully be answered in the next scene.
Transistions -- The opposite of buttons. Match-cuts. Questions answered or twisted. Dialogue pickups.

Marvel’s The Avengers: $1.5B

The Dark Knight Rises: $1.08B

Skyfall: $1.03B

The Hobbit: $888.3M

Ice Age: Continental Drift: $876.4M

The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn: $822.7M

The Amazing Spider-Man: $754.8M

Madagascar: Europe’s Most Wanted: $743.8M

The Hunger Games: $691.2M

Men In Black 3: $625M
Where do we fit in?
Ted -- 549 mil
The Conjuring -- 316mil
We're The Millers --266mil
SafeHouse -- 200mil
Looper -- 176mil
Great Original Concepts
Genre ideas
Made for under 50 Million
Your concepts need to be good enough to attract Agents, Producers, and Studios. They will be pitched by EVERYONE up the chain. Including marketing departments.
Technique 3: Change 1 Element
1) Concept
2) Character
3) Location
4) Time Period
5) Tone
6) Genre
7) Arena
8) Theme
9) Conflict
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